Amazing success of Sheffield People’s Petition shows demand for Council to be more democratic. The Council must now act before it’s too late!

Facts about the petition
Many thousands of citizens, from all over Sheffield, signed Sheffield People’s Petition to demand the choice of making their Council more democratic. The signatures have now been rigorously checked by Sheffield City Council officers, in line with the regulations of the 2011 Localism Act. They have declared that there are 21,815 signatures counted as “valid” under the strict rules of the Act, well over the 20,092 required. The law now requires a city-wide referendum to be held on whether the Council should change to a more democratic, modern committee system for making decisions.

The fact that over 80% of the Sheffielders asked, supported the Petition, is a powerful indication that the referendum will also support change and finally force the Council to act.  Sheffield Council could have responded positively to the Petition before it was submitted, to avoid holding a referendum and spending city money unnecessarily, but they failed to do this.  

Sheffield People’s Petition is the largest ever petition for a change of governance in the country. Sheffielders’ aspirations are for democratic local governance that listens to, respects, and works better for the communities it serves.  Communities and campaigners around the country have been contacting It’s Our City! with congratulations, and to ask for advice on taking similar action in their own areas.

A Sheffield referendum is likely to be held at the same time as the local elections on May 7th 2020.  Legally, before 12th March 2020, the Council must publish the  proposal for the operation of the new committee system for Sheffield, to be voted on in the referendum. Other councils have often taken over 1 year to design their new committee systems, but through its inaction and indifference Sheffield Council now only has 6 months to do this from scratch – action is required immediately!

What happens now?

Campaigners have already laid out, in submitting the Petition and directly to the Council, 4 key areas that must be addressed in plans for moving to a more democratic local governance in a modern committee system.  This includes – a focus on meaningful representation, improved participation, real cross-party working, and addressing inequalities.  These are identified from many thousands of conversations with citizens across the city. 

Embracing such a positive and progressive agenda to get better decisions and decision-making would place our city at the forefront of thinking and practice in democratic local governance.  Campaigners welcome the positive statement of the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council saying they want a ‘big conversation’, following the formal announcement that the Petition is valid. 

However, It’s Our City! point out that this conversation has already been happening for over 1 year, between many thousands of people and groups across the city discussing the Petition, without any interest or cooperation from the Council.

These many thousands of people are disappointed at the failure of their Council to engage in any serious discussion, especially as campaigners worked, in vain, to create many opportunities for the Council to do this over the last year.  The Council’s reaction to the petition also led to a crisis in the Council ruling group, with 6 councillors resigning (2 leading Cabinet members and 4 councillors in Cabinet support roles) and declaring support for the Petition, apparently in the face of the current political leadership of the city.  With the seemingly positive words now coming from the current leadership, it is difficult to understand exactly why these councillors felt forced to resign.  Even though change to a modern committee system has widespread support across all political groupings, progress has appeared blocked for many, many months by the very Council leadership that now declares its support for improvements.  Citizens will be watching closely, with an understandable degree of scepticism, and the knowledge that greater democracy seems unlikely to  be promoted by those that appear to have a great investment in the existing, power-in-the-hands-of-the-few, ‘strong leader’ system.  

Unlike many councils Sheffield Council has never had regular governance reviews, and has no obvious history or competence in openly and honestly examining its own governance. So, our Council now has only 6 months to design a new modern committee system from scratch!  The good news is that support is available – the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) are the national experts on council governance change, working hand in hand with Local Government Association (LGA) regional advisers.  The CfPS is the only organisation that has facilitated this process many times across the UK before, with an effective methodology. So, their involvement will be vital in quickly supporting a city of Sheffield’s size, with all its varied and diverse stakeholders, in a productive conversation, and helping design a governance system that meets the democratic aspirations of Sheffielders. 

The Council still doesn’t seem to have realised its legal obligations following the success of the petition. The Council’s official response to the success of the Petition is to ‘carry on as before’, with the deputy leader continuing with a vague, internal review of “possible options for governance models”.  The legal reality is that there will now be a referendum in May 2020 with only 2 options – whether to stay with the current system or to change to a more democratic modernised committee system. The Council is now legally obliged to “draw up proposals for the operation of” a new, modernised committee system for Sheffield and publish it by early March 2020, so that voters are fully informed before the holding of the referendum in May.

By ‘carrying on as before’, the Council is in grave danger of failing in its legal obligations. If the Council fails to ‘get-real’ and does not contact the CfPS immediately, this week, then the leadership will have, once again, shown their misreading of the situation.